(Editor’s Note: This guest post comes from Jennifer Hattam, an Istanbul-based journalist and blogger, who recently came across a rather striking culinary vision in the heart of Istanbul.)
Sweet-toothed Istanbul residents lined up recently in Taksim Square for a sticky, gooey bite from a 73-meter-long künefe – one meter for every year that the province of Hatay has been a part of Turkey.
A popular dessert made with different variations across the Middle East, künefe’s Turkish version – thin strands of shredded dough encasing a layer of soft cheese, baked and drenched in sugar syrup – reaches its greatest culinary heights in Hatay, a southern province famed for its distinctive regional cuisine. The künefe at the “Hatay Days in Istanbul” celebration was cooked in 43 large round pans, using 172 kilograms of layered pastry, 172 kilograms of syrup, and 85 kilograms of cheese, according to local news reports.
Many revelers wore official event T-shirts with a cross, a crescent, and a Star of David, reflecting Hatay’s multi-religious heritage – the province is home to the ancient city of Antioch, a center of early Christianity – and the words “peace, tolerance, and brotherhood.”
The word peaceful, however, could hardly be used to describe the events marked by the celebrations in Taksim. Hatay was a part of Syria before becoming Turkey’s 63rd province in 1939, a politically tangled development preceded by border skirmishes, followed by protests in Syria, and still not recognized on official Syrian maps. (These days, of course, Hatay is witness to the violence taking place across the border in Syria and is now home to a large number of Syrian refugees.) Even during the height of animosities, though, people on both sides of the border – wherever it was drawn – could surely find common ground in their love for künefe.
Meanwhile, as impressive as the stretch of künefe in Taksim was, the Turks may have a thing or two to learn from their Azeri neighbors when it comes to making desserts that can both feed a crowd and make a statement. The Taksim künefe utterly pales in comparison to a culinary stunt pulled off a few days earlier in Baku, the capital of oil and gas rich Azerbaijan, where local chefs somehow put together a five-ton tray of baklava in honor of the Nevruz spring holiday. According to Turkish news reports, the monster baklava was some 21 meters long, six meters wide and was large enough to feed 40 thousand people. Tea was provided, of course – from a 700-liter capacity samovar built for the occasion.